For me, cutting onions is methodical and automatic – and yet, despite this, it is not an empty task, either. Every time I cut onions, I remember my emergency backup mother, who taught me how to cut them “the French way”, which attempts to get the pieces of onion to be as close to the same size as possible. I love the way they smell – earthy and sweet and spicy – and the way they sound. But more than anything, cutting onions makes me feel like I’ve centered myself. Like I have established a connection to the ground with my feet, and a connection to everything in the real, visceral world through my hands. Every fragment of my focus comes together and I am present. For just that little space of time, I am meditating: in front of me is a task that manages to occupy my entire mind and body. And so for just that little space of time, I am free.
And so this recipe starts with just that: cutting up an onion.
This is my go-to soup recipe. It can be made with pretty much any vegetable you have in your fridge, and probably with any kind of legume you have at hand. All you really need is an onion, a can of tomatoes, and some spices. And, if you’re anything like me, these simple things together will remind you of what is real, and what is unreal; what is to be feared, and what is to be mastered; and what you can do after dinner to start making things easier for yourself. Like having dessert.
Roll your shoulders a couple times, and then buckle down and cut up that onion. While you do, notice that it smells sprightly and piquant; that it makes a satisfying zipping sound as you chop it in half; that its skin is crackly and slides like paper under your fingers. Remember that what has happened is past, and here you are in the present, cutting up an onion. Maybe cut up your other vegetables as well, if you think that’s a good plan.
Saute your onions over medium-high heat in the first bit of the oil, until they’re somewhere between clear and golden brown. Unless you’re impatient like me. Just remember that the less sauteed your onions are, the sweeter your soup will be.
When your onions are mostly done, add your non-leafy vegetables. Allow these to soak up that oil for a while, and soften, and heat up. While you’re stirring them, add your cumin and other spices. Give them a head start.
Add the lentils, and the rest of the oil. Stir a lot. Coat the lentils in the oil, and let them cook for a bit – maybe a minute.
Add the water, and the can of tomatoes. Bring to a boil, and then simmer on medium heat, stirring when you get bored. After about three minutes on the hob, taste-test your broth and add more spices as necessary. Too bright? Add cumin. Needs fragrance? Add rosemary or oregano. Cook thus until the lentils and vegetables are tender enough that you’d be happy to eat them, and then turn the heat off. Stir in whatever mysterious green thing you turned up from the back of your fridge, and let it wilt a bit. There you go. That's it. You can have dinner now. Breathe.